Toward a Theory of Humor (Fragment)

Macedonio Fernández

What is the effect upon consciousness (to me the only genuinely artistic effect) of conceptual humor? That the Absurd, or miracle of irrationality, believed for a brief moment, liberates the spirit of man, for an instant, of the overwhelming dogma of a universal law of rationality. Although “rationality” has a positive affective resonance, that is, a pleasurable connotation, because it seems to be synonymous with our general security of life and conduct, nevertheless, as soon as it is experienced as an inexorable, universal law, it limits the richness of the possibilities of life. And this limitation, like any other, has a negative affective resonance in consciousness. “Variety” and “allpossible” have an optimistic tonality; but in humor there is the additional delight of the author’s having successfully fooled the most alert, most vigilant guardians of our mental life. The joke that works gives pleasure simply by virtue of being a kind of game—even though it is at our expense (but an absolutely minimal expense: an instant of belief in the absurd), and it is doubly pleasurable when the author reveals a great capacity, an enviable subtlety in the art of deception; all talent is desirable and all displays of talent give particular pleasure).

As is apparent, for me it is a Merit that an artistic technique can move, can disturb our ontological security, our great “principles of reason,” our intellectual security. How can such disturbances be a virtue? My argument will seem intricate, but for me it is absolutely clear: if through the actions or words of a character in a novel I manage to make the live, conscious reader believe for a moment that lie is a “character” lacking in existence, lie will, as a result of this, feel himself liberated from death, that is, lie will feel that his notion that he has to die is inconsistent with what his experience has shown him, that is, that in the sum total of his life experiences there is space for the mental phenomenon of believing oneself dead in which the believing itself is, of course, living. In the same way, in the what I call Illogic of Art or Conceptual Humor, the tricking of all the intellectual guardians in the reader’s mind by means of a fleeting belief in the absurd definitively frees the reader—as William James was freed, and I, thanks to James, perhaps, have been freed—from that logic that tells us every day: “since everybody dies, you must die,” or “there is no effect without a cause.”

The art of the novel and of humor should be attuned to the nimbleness and the amplitude of contemporary consciousness. Remember that we’re living in the century of the Third Reflection of the Self (the Self that is thinking of the Self that yesterday was thinking of the Self).

In conclusion, . . . I invite the readers to propose some example of a joke or bit of humor that I would not be able to analyze or explain in accordance with my theory of the essential optimism of humor. The verbal joke (there exists a humor of gestures and physical acts, but this is not the Illogic of Art, or mental impossibility) is the only genuinely artistic, that is to say, nonrealist humor, and it should contain, essentially: (1) an absolute absurdity one is made to believe; (2) total absence of harmful or depressing elements; (3) the implicit promise of an important, rational communication; (4) the experience of pleasure, without laughter but with joy, arising from the liberation from logic, and pleasure with laughter is a result of our having been fooled so cleverly by the author. . . . It is curious that one of the great chapters of human pleasure, Jokes and Humor, has thus far failed to disclose the fact that its dominant theme must be, in essence, an allusion to happiness, to pleasure.

SOURCE: Fernández, Macedonio. “Toward a Theory of Humor (Fragment),” in Macedonio: Selected Writings in Translation, edited by Jo Anne Engelbert (Fort Worth, TX: Latitudes Press, 1984), pp. 28-29.

Note: This must be a translated excerpt from:

“Para una teoria de la Humoristica,” in Papeles de Recienvenido y continuación de la nada by Macedonio Fernández, prologue by Ramón Gomez de la Serna (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1944; Centro Editor de América Latina, 1966; Editorial Corregidor, 1989).

For extensive background, see:

Borinsky, Alicia. Theoretical Fables: The Pedagogical Dream in Contemporary Latin American Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. See especially chapter 1: An Apprenticeship in Reading: Macedonio Fernández, pp. 1-16; see also chapter 2: Taming the Reader: Jorge Luis Borges, pp. 17-33.

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